Lurid Stories and More (Sep 06)

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My grandmother was addicted to reading those true detective magazines with the really lurid pictures. They scared me, but I shared a bedroom with her so I read them too — carefully averting my eyes from the sprawling corpses. I guess I can blame my sainted grandmother, then, for my attraction to the sensational, now focused on the always convoluted stories of scandalous behavior in organizations. When the story came out about the Hewlett board of directors spying on its members, I settled down for a few months of yet another sordid soap opera from the annals of corporate America. You always learn something from such stuff about what’s on that boundary between legal and illegal, and ethical and despicable but, believe me, I don’t follow this stuff for its educational value.
Anyway, it led me to wonder — if nonprofits were really to act more like business . . . under what conditions would we set a pack of P.I.s loose on our boards? It’s an intriguing question and if any of you have an example of board behavior that stooped to that level we’d love to hear about it.
Not many nonprofit board problems are about illegal behavior. A friend told me not long ago about a situation with his board where the chair suggested (in no uncertain terms) that he hire a board member into a key position inside the organization. He capitulated but then set about torturing himself about the situation — until he eventually got around to drawing that bright ethical line for the board chair. The board chair accepted it because she certainly did not intend to harm the organization.
This kind of situation, though painful, flows out of the informality that is the energy and soul of a young organization. That family-like informality is a very positive force at first but eventually you have to either grow out of it or the organization remains dangerously adolescent — and in and out of trouble over its lifetime.
Making that change to instituting more formal processes can feel hard because many of us cannot recognize all of the possible consequences of the actions we take.
“Many of us” does not include Warren Buffet. . . he’s another matter. The man is nothing if not foresighted. We don’t know just how Buffett weighed all the possible implications of his investment in the Gates Foundation, but this article by Buzz Schmidt is the most thorough analysis I have seen to date of what the gift means financially for Buffett and for the Gates Foundation. Press reports on the topic were largely inaccurate on these points.
It is fascinating and informative — not scandalous but interesting in the same way that a scandal might be.
The Fall 2006 NPQ will feature additional analysis of the implications of this monumental investment.